St. Etheldreda’s Church is a Roman Catholic church and dates back to 1250 when it was the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely. It was built by John de Kirkeby, the Bishop of Ely, and dedicated to Etheldreda, a Saxon Princess born in 630 and who was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. It is the oldest Catholic church building in England and one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I. It was, however, used as an Anglican church for hundreds of years until its purchase by Catholics in the 1874. It was once one of the most influential places in London.
Despite wanting to be a nun, Etheldreda agreed to an arranged marriage with King Egfrith only on the condition that she remain a virgin. However, the King changed his mind and Etheldreda fled back to Ely where she founded a religious community. Etheldreda died in 679 of the plague and was buried in a simple grave at Ely Cathedral. About 16 years after her death, Etheldreda’s body was removed from that grave to be interred in something more befitting her status. Her body was found to be “incorrupt,” with no signs of decay. Believing it to be a sign from God and that she was a saint, Etheldreda’s reputation for miracles grew and so did the religious relics. Today an annual blessing is still held in the church on her saints day for those with sore throats and neck infections.
Off the main thoroughfare, the church is down a little cul-de-sac. The walls are ordained with shields of prominent families of the day and to the right of the altar is a small wooden jeweled casket. Inside it is claimed is the undecayed hand of Etheldreda herself still intact more than 1,350 years after her death.
Know Before You Go
The church is open for private prayer Monday to Friday, 10 am – 4.30 pm. Admission Free. Entrance to the main body of the church is down a long corridor, past the crypt. Nearest tube: Farringdon or Chancery Lane